Silver Screen: Life of Pi **1/2
Speaking of insipid allegories, Yann Martel’s wildly overrated and thunderously stupid novel Life of Pi gets its own movie adaptation, and a handsome one at that. The aesthetic majesty of the production contrasted with the book’s cloying idiocy makes for a strange experience that leaves viewers feeling as twisted around and vaguely seasick as if they’d been adrift on a lifeboat themselves.
Ang Lee is an interesting director for a movie about religious devotion. It’s hard to tell what he’s devoted to, based on his filmography. He’s most famous for the spectacle of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and most infamous for the botched spectacle of his misguided Hulk, but he also directed the deservedly lauded Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm in addition to Chinese-language dramas about food and family (Eat Drink Man Woman) and sex and politics (Lust, Caution). It may be that Lee’s greatest strength is a lack of devotion, artistically, to any genre or ideology. Several of Lee’s movies are excellent individually, but as a disparate collective they’re even more dazzling in their heterogeneity.
Perhaps that’s part of Lee’s attraction to Pi, the movie’s title character, who begins his life in India as a precocious spiritualist. (Pi is played as a child by Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon and as an adult by Irrafan Khan, but for the vast majority of the movie he’s played by Suraj Sharma as a teenager.) He enthusiastically soaks up the words of almost any deity, Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist, with no regard to the conflicts and contradictions among them. His father is a benevolent but firm authoritarian whose stodgy rejoinders to Pi’s theological inquiries are the first indications that the film will spend its time creating a straw man to knock down for its philosophical victory. When his father grumpily chastises Pi that religion is often bad and that, if Pi wants to pursue it, he needs to dedicate himself to just one of them, he’s basically vocalizing the exact antithesis of the movie’s surprisingly singular and direct message.
After some compelling youthful adventures in India, teenage Pi is forced to move to Canada with his father, a zoo owner gone broke who must sell the animals in North America to raise money and start a new life for his family. But on the trip westward, the ship carrying Pi, his family, the zoo animals, and dozens of others is felled by a storm. It’s the film’s best and most compelling sequence, a truly terrifying disaster scene in which Lee’s camera moves in and out of the sinking boat as it floods, drowned in frozen silence beneath the waterline and assaulted with cacophonous noise and motion topside among the crashing waves and wind. Pi swims through corridors choked with frantic animals and emerges onto the deck just in time to get into the only successfully launched lifeboat, which he soon finds he shares with several stowaways, including a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger.
After a grim day in the boat, only Pi and the tiger, named Richard Parker, are alive. Adrift for weeks, Pi must find a way to communicate with his untamable shipmate if he’s to survive.
Life of Pi is one of the few live-action movies that’s superior in 3D. Most of the effects, including most of the tiger’s scenes, are computer-generated, and seamlessly so. The 3D actually enhances the digital effects rather than flattening real images and layering them across multiple planes of depth. As in Avatar, where the 3D mostly enhanced the lush backgrounds, here it mostly serves to provide depth to the endless ocean. One particular image of the lifeboat floating beneath a starry sky reflected in the calm surface below is particularly beautiful; moments like these inspire exactly the kind of sublime religious feelings the movie fails to inspire when the dialogue and story seize directly upon the themes.
Without revealing too much about the conclusion, there’s a twist ending, delivered via a frame story of an older Pi recounting his tale to a blandly handsome, unnamed Canadian writer/Yann Martel stand-in (Rafe Spall). Pi’s last-minute revelation presents the audience with a choice: to believe the amazing tale they just saw vividly realized (in the magic of 3D!) or a grim, realist’s take. If you choose to believe in the fanciful version of the story, the movie directly asserts, then you choose to believe in God.
Like the world’s least adroit three-card monte dealer, Lee (via Martel) wags his head and darts his eyes and points his tongue at the card he wants you to choose, while making strangled choking noises that sound suspiciously like “Ahem-- this one! Ahem-- pick this one!” There’s no real ambiguity here, just a passing nod toward the existence of a counterargument the movie has spent two hours bracing you against. Thanks to the high-tech, plastic-rimmed glasses provided by the theater, you can actually see the filmmakers trying to dupe you in three dimensions.
It’s a shame Martel has such a shoddy philosophical thesis, because Lee’s striking visuals inspire plenty of awe.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.